Monday, June 2, 2014

Pushing It to the Edge & Not Going Over

It is in our natures to push things. Our innate drives make us this way. The huge danger is pushing something so far that it tilts over the edge and you go spiraling downward. If you can just take it to the edge and not tilt over, that is the best place to be. But it is a precarious place to be and one has to be both brilliant and devious to hold that position. There are two legal cases we are going to study regarding this phenomenon. You know the first because it is present day but the second, the Ezra Pound case set in post WWII America, you probably do not.  

Enter Exhibit A, Oscar Pistorius and the twists and turns of his trial. Pistorius is on trial for his life in South Africa for the murder of his girlfriend. He claims he thought he was shooting an intruder whereas the prosecution contends he knew it was her and intended to kill her. Pistorius is famous world wide for being the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics using prosthetic legs. If you want to know the details of the complete case, go my earlier entry here.

Pistorius is presently in Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital, being evaluated for thirty days by a panel of psychiatrists. Pistorius back ended himself into there with the assistance of his lawyers. And he did this by pushing the issues in the trial so far that they tilted over the edge and landed him precisely where he and his lawyers did not want him to go.

Pistorius tried to win the case by raising his psychiatric condition. After merely two visits with a psychiatrist, he had this psychiatrist testify as to his mental affliction as a buttress for his intruder theory. She testified that because of his status as a double amputee, since he was an infant, he has a heightened sense of anxiety which causes him to fight in any threatening situation. In America this would be viewed as trying to mitigate one's guilt by using one's diminished capacity for responsibility for his actions. This is essentially what he is trying to accomplish with the judge in South Africa.

But he pushed it too far. By opening this door, the prosecution then insisted that he be fully examined to find out his precise mental condition. For thirty days these psychiatrists will examine him to primarily determine if Pistorius can tell the difference between right and wrong, what the law requires for his mental condition to make a big difference in his results.

Generally, psychiatrists need to discover a complete psychotic break in a personality in order to say that the person cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Some of the very few cases where this was established was with the following defendants: David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer; Mark Chapman, John Lennon's killer and John Hinckley, President Reagan's would-be assassin, who succeeded in severely wounding him instead of killing him.  In each of those cases, the defendant was living an interior life which had no basis in reality. Their minds were creating imaginary realties and they acted in accordance with those imaginings.

Far from trying to sell the psychiatrists on their mental states, these defendants were incapable of talking or responding to the realities of the real world. This is almost impossible to fake as the patient must be consistent for every moment of interacting with the world. Chapman was calmly reading a book after murdering Lennon with no sign of being affected by his murder in any way. Even the police could tell when arresting Berkowitz and Chapman that they were so crazy that they'd never end up anywhere but a mental hospital. And the police tend to believe everyone is faking!

Pistorius by contrast can talk and talk and talk about his actions in the killing. That is when he is not whining about his fate or throwing up in court or outright crying. He is very aware of the real world and his precarious status in it. The other three killers, by contrast, were still rooted in their imaginary lives and had no emotions or feelings about their killing acts whatsoever. They had to do the killing because something or someone in their imaginary worlds demanded it so they have no sense of responsibility for the action, much less guilt.

So it is highly unlikely that any of those psychiatrists will find that Oscar Pistorius does not know the difference between right and wrong. He might be found with some psychiatric condition but probably not one serious enough to affect his legal outcome.

If this makes you think that psychiatry is rather cut and dried when it comes to these cases though, there is a far more extreme case to change your mind. It also shows that some people can take things right to the edge and not tilt over it. It helps if one is the most devious expert on human behavior though.

Enter Exhibit B, Dr. Winfred Overholser, above right. Also shown: Ezra Pound, left, and their shared quarters at the old main building of St. Elizabeth's, middle.

Ezra Pound the poet was a traitor to the United States during WWII. He collaborated with the enemy, Mussolini in fascist Italy. The plan was to try him and execute him as a traitor.

The prosecution had its psychiatrists all lined up ready to show that Pound was completely sane when he betrayed his country. Then the whole case was tilted on its head because the most prominent psychiatrist in the country, Winfred Overholser, the one who ran St. Elizabeth's mental hospital for the criminally insane in the District of Columbia, took the contrary stance that Pound was insane and should be committed and to his hospital no less.

This threw the other psychiatrists into a tizzy because they began thinking they must have missed something if the most prominent psychiatrist in the country, a president of the American Psychiatric Association, had detected his insanity. The upshot was that Pound ended up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital running his own literary salon with all the perks of a finer life thrown in to make his stay as comfortable as possible. He was allowed all sorts of visitors and his psychiatrist was able to enjoy this literary circle as well since he located Pound close to his own quarters.

Overholser much, much later, when nothing could be done to him, admitted that Pound was sane. The worst Pound suffered from was narcissistic personality disorder, the same disorder Pistorius's detractors claim is his true affliction. Overholser did not want Pound executed. He saw the opportunity to set him up in his hospital for both his own and Pound's benefit and took it. Most significantly, Pound finished his most important creative writing work while at St. Elizabeth's, The Cantos. Pound willingly stayed there for 12 years, content in the nurturing and creatively supportive environment provided for him there.

So who pushed things right to the edge and didn't tilt over? Overholser did. It is unlikely, however, that Oscar Pistorius has a similar guardian angel on staff at the formerly known Pretoria Lunatic Asylum willing to do the same for him.

1 comment:

  1. A great read! Informative, revealing, insightful, educational, thrilling!--thanks, Carol!